The benefits of NASA's space exploration efforts are not limited to the cosmos. NASA technologies provide innovative solutions for people around the world. NASA missions have generated thousands of spinoffs — commercialized products we use every day. On the following pages, we highight just some of the many innovations that had their origins in NASA programs.
Eight years after President Kennedy challenged Americans to reach for the Moon, Project Apollo landed the first humans on the lunar surface and returned them safely to Earth. The Apollo program also developed technology to meet other national interests in space, conducted scientific exploration of the Moon, and developed humanity's capability to work in the lunar environment.
Temper Foam – Perhaps the most widely recognized NASA spinoff, memory foam — also known as temper foam — dates back to 1966 when it was developed to absorb shock and offer improved protection and comfort in NASA's aerospace seats. Today, memory foam makes for more comfortable beds, couches, and chairs as well as better shoes, movie theater seats, and even football helmets.
Insulating Material – The thin, shiny, reflective material used to insulate everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to hikers, from the Mars rovers to marathon runners, from computers to campers, from satellites to Sun shields, and from rockets to residences is one of the simplest, yet most versatile NASA spinoffs. The insulating material that coated the base of the Apollo lunar landing vehicles has been employed on virtually all manned and unmanned NASA missions.
Freeze-Dried Foods – Freeze-dried food solved the problem of what to feed an astronaut on the long-duration Apollo missions. Freeze-drying foods preserves nutritional value and taste, while also reducing weight and increasing shelf life.
Cooling Suits – Cool suits, which kept Apollo astronauts comfortable during Moon walks, are today worn by racecar drivers, nuclear reactor technicians, shipyard workers, people with multiple sclerosis, and children with a congenital disorder known as hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, which restricts the body's ability to cool itself.
Green Buildings – The same fabric used in Apollo-era spacesuits has been spun off into a cost-effective, environmentally friendly building material. Used on structures around the world, the Teflon-coated fiberglass strands create a permanent, tent-like roof. Less expensive than conventional roofing materials, the durable white fabric allows natural light to shine through, saving a significant amount of energy.
Exercise Equipment – A cardiovascular conditioner developed for astronauts in space led to the invention of a physical therapy and athletic development machine used by football teams, sports clinics, and medical rehabilitation centers.
Flame-Resistant Textiles – After a fire on the Apollo launch pad that resulted in the deaths of three astronauts, NASA worked with private industry to develop a line of fire-resistant textiles for use in spacesuits and vehicles. These materials are now used in numerous firefighting, military, motor sports, and other applications.
Water Purification – Water purification technology used on the Apollo spacecraft is now employed in several spinoff applications to kill bacteria, viruses, and algae in community water supply systems and cooling towers. Filters mounted on faucets reduce lead in water supplies.
Fly-by-Wire – The Apollo Lunar Landing Training Vehicle used to train the Apollo spacecraft commanders employed an analog fly-by-wire system with no mechanical backup, making it the first genuine fly-by-wire vehicle. Digital Fly-by-Wire (DFBW) demonstrated the ability to fly an aircraft by digital computer alone. The first commercial airliner to fly with DFBW was the Airbus 320 in 1987, followed by Boeing's 777 in 1994. Today, the technology is used on most major airlines, enabling greater fuel efficiency.
Cordless Tools – Among the most important tasks performed by Apollo astronauts was collecting lunar rock and soil. Obtaining subsurface soil required development of a special drill capable of extracting core samples from as much as 10 feet below the surface. The drill had to be lightweight and compact with its own power source. Black & Decker designed a battery-powered, magnetmotor system for the drill and used it as a base for battery-powered tools such as the Dustbuster handheld rechargeable vacuum.
Space Pens – Originally developed for NASA astronaut recordkeeping on Apollo missions, Fisher Space Pens became a multimillion-dollar-a-year product. The pens were created to allow writing in orbit where ordinary pens that rely on gravity and atmospheric pressure for ink flows were inadequate. The antigravity pen was introduced to space service on Apollo 7 and has been in regular NASA use since then.
Computed Tomography – Computed tomography (CT or CATScan) incorporates digital image processing technology that traces its origin to NASA research and development performed as a prelude to the Apollo program. Millions of people around the world benefit each year from the medical applications of this technology.
Between the first launch on April 12, 1981, and the final landing on July 21, 2011, the space shuttle fleet — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour — flew 135 missions, helped construct the International Space Station, and inspired generations. The Space Shuttle Program alone has generated more than 100 technology spinoffs including those presented here.
Heart Pump – More than 200 patients received a second chance at life with tiny heart pumps developed from space shuttle fuel pump technology. Just 1 inch in diameter and weighing less than 4 ounces, the miniaturized ventricular assist pumps were developed by NASA and renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey.
Rescue Tool – Rescue squads use a handheld cutter to remove accident victims from wrecked vehicles. Based on a miniature version of the explosive charges used to separate the shuttle from the solid rocket boosters after launch, this device requires no auxiliary power or cumbersome hoses, and it costs 70% less than previous rescue equipment.
Life-Saving Light – Children suffering from brain tumors may receive relief from lighting technology originally developed for space shuttle plant experiments. These light-emitting diodes may be able to kill cancerous tumors in a process called photodynamic therapy.
Automotive Insulation – NASCAR race-cars shield drivers from extreme engine heat using materials from the same thermal protection system tiles used to safeguard NASA astronauts onboard the space shuttle.
Green Lubricants – Sporting equipment and cars are kinder to the environment with NASA's high-performance, biodegradable lubricants developed for the enormous crawlers that moved the space shuttles to and from the launch pads in Florida.
Firefighting Infrared Camera – Firefighters locate hot spots in wildfires by scanning the flames with a sensitive infrared handheld camera, first used by NASA to observe the blazing plumes from shuttles.
Home Insulation – Homeowners insulate homes with the same lightweight, flexible aerogel NASA used to insulate cryogenics on space shuttles. The insulation is many times thinner and more effective than standard fiberglass insulation yet can be handled and installed with the same traditional methods.
Prosthesis Material – Foam insulation used to protect the shuttle's external tank is now available to produce master molds for prosthetics. Replacing heavy, fragile plaster, this new material is light, virtually indestructible, and easy to ship and store.
Video Stabilization Software – When law enforcement officials needed help clarifying crime-scene video, NASA assisted with high-tech image processing technology used to analyze space shuttle launch video. This software removes defects due to image jitter, rotation, and zoom in video sequences, and may also be useful for medical imaging, scientific applications, and home video.
Water Conditioner – A home use water treatment incorporates technology developed to purify water aboard space shuttle orbiters. The system uses NASA silver ion technology as a basis for development of a silver carbon dense enough to remain on top of the water softening resin bed.